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NBC Coverage of the Brickyard 400

by Cheryl Lauer
August 5, 2003

I'm really late with my review this week. We went to South Boston this weekend to see the USAR race on Saturday night and got home just in time to catch the Winston Cup race. It took me a little while to find some free time to write the review of the broadcast, it was "Indy" after all you know. This was a good effort by the NBC crew and there appeared to be less commercials this week. There was a little too much emphasis placed on the spectacle of being at Indianapolis and the prestige in winning there, than the actual racing.

I didn't get home in time to watch the entire pre-race show, but the part I did see focused on the "story" of Indiana native, Tony Stewart, and how much he wanted to win at the Brickyard. This seemed to be the storyline that NBC focused on much of the day. Unfortunately, for them, it didn't pan out.

As the actual broadcast began, NBC had a graphic of who failed to make the race and who had to drop to the back of the field because of engine changes and various problems. I particularly enjoyed this information since I had been out of touch with NASCAR on Saturday and not heard the results of qualifying. NBC also mentioned that this was the first time that Ken Schrader had failed to make a race since 1984, which was a shame. Allen Bestwick also told us that John Andretti had a problem with his engine during the post-qualifying inspection.

At lap 4, NBC mentioned that Jeff Burton and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. had gained a lot of positions from their starting positions in mid-30s. Next, they focused exclusively on Earnhardt for several consecutive laps, even though there appeared to be passing further up in the pack. I can only guess that Budweiser paid a lot of money to have their car shown from every angle at the beginning of this race. Because the Citgo car seemed to actually be moving up through field at a quicker pace at this point.

NBC went to their first commercial break at lap 7, and the producer seemed to have a lot of breaks in the early portion of the race. At the second commercial break, we got the silly highlight seque in place of green flag racing. During this break, the first pass for the lead occurred and obviously the viewers missed it. After showing us a replay, NBC showed us about two laps of racing before going away for another break. This time they were gone for six laps and missed Tony Stewart passing for second place as well as the lead. But we got to see another replay when we returned as well as a replay of some contact between Robby Gordon and Jimmy Johnson.

Next, Allen reported that several cars came in for early pit stops, including Ward Burton, Kevin LePage, and Terry Labonte (who thought he had a tire going down). Bill Weber reported that Stewart had switched ignition boxes and this had eliminated the popping noise that the driver heard in the car during early laps. NBC stayed with the race for three laps this time before going to their fourth commercial break.

NBC started out a little slowly covering the pit road accident involving Dale Jarrett, but eventually provided very thorough coverage. Initially, Marty Snider reported only on the damage to the car and then when the caution came out, NBC told the viewers that Jarrett had hit a crew member when he locked us his brakes entering his pit stall. There were several replays of the incident and NBC showed the safety workers attending to the crewman. Bill quickly told the viewers that the man injured was John Bryan, the tire changer and interviewed crew chief, Sean Parker, who assured us that Bryan was awake and alert. NBC explained that Bryan was also injured during a pit road accident which occurred at Homestead in 2001, and the production crew queued up a replay of that incident. One of the broadcast team mentioned that he had spoken to Bryan before the race and that he had expressed his concern over the narrow pit boxes at Indy. Later in the race, Allen reported that Bryan was being transported to the hospital.

Benny Parsons was quick to tell us when Jeff Gordon came onto pit road because he was out of gas despite the fact the pits were closed because of the accident. Allen followed this up later by saying that Gordon and others who came in because they were also running out of gas would have to restart the race at the end of the longest line. At the restart, Allen explained that Ryan Newman was the leader and Robby Gordon was at the tail end of the lead lap.

There were good replays of John Andretti's accident, and Dave Burns had an interview with Andretti much later in the race. NBC told us that Earnhardt had to come in to replace tires during the caution because he felt a vibration and his team had found it was a loose lugnut.

NBC did their first Through the Field segment of the day at lap 61. The pit reporters pointed out that Matt Kenseth had some nose damage to his car after being involved in the incident with Andretti and that, so far, he wasn't having any temperature problems because of it. Bill told us that Newman reported that he had thought he had a wheel out of balance. NBC went through 27 of the 36 cars on the lead lap during the field rundown. I'm not sure why NBC couldn't show at least all the cars on the lead lap because they took the time to give us another highlight seque on their way to commercial right afterwards. Fans want to hear about the drivers on the track, not see highlight videos.

During the next segment, NBC covered some good side-by-side racing involving Jimmy Johnson with Jamie McMurray and Rusty Wallace. Benny pointed out that Kenseth was driving down on the track and he thought maybe he was having a little trouble with overheating and was trying to get some air into the grill of his car. There was some good radio chatter where Johnson told his crew chief he was tired of "being smart." Benny pointed out that Chad Knaus calling Johnson in to pit would serve to calm him down a bit after a frustrating battle to get by Rusty Wallace. During this time, Bill made a pretty witty comment that I really enjoyed when he said, "This is not an old Rusty Wallace, it's the Rusty Wallace of old." Bill also told us that Newman was making an early pit stop because he had run out of gas. NBC continues to use the color-coding on the ticker to show which cars have pitted during green flag pit stops, which is great. Wally Dallenbach was quick to tell the viewers that Johnson got out of the pits ahead of Wallace, so he finally succeeded in passing him. Allen and Benny commented that Newman lost about 20 seconds to Stewart by running out of gas. Next the director showed the interval between them on the track, which was really good in bringing home the point. Allen told us that Wallace had gotten back by Johnson on the track. At the end of the pit stop segment, Allen told the viewers that Stewart now had a 10 second lead on McMurray in second place. Marty reported that Earnhardt was complaining of another tire vibration. At lap 96, NBC told us that Bill Elliott had run out of gas on the track due to the long green flag run. Next the producer provided a graphic showing how McMurray was gaining on Stewart. Allen told us that Kyle Petty had gone to the garage because of gear problems.

During the next caution, NBC had their third highlight video as they went to commercial. I don't mind this type of thing being shown during caution periods and the producer did a good job using the song "Brick House" to accompany this one, with the play on words with the name of the track. I also enjoyed the camera placed at the rumble strip area on the track. It provided some good speed shots during the race.

After pit stops, as we've come to expect, the NBC crew updated us on who took two or four tires. There was a replay of a tire getting away from the pit crew during Sterling Marlin's pit stop and someone speculated on the probability that the 40 team would receive a penalty because of this. They also told us that Stewart came out 7th after a problem with their airgun. There did seem to be a little excessive coverage and replays of Stewart's pit stop, but he had led a lot of the race and seemed to be the focus of the major "story" from NBC.

At lap 121, Wally mentioned that a lot of cloud cover had moved over the track and that this might affect the handling characteristics on some cars. NBC began another Through the Field at lap 125, but had to interrupt it to show Newman's team pitting early because they were in their fuel window. Stewart pitted early as well, and Benny pointed out that early pitting by the 12 and 20 would force the 42 of McMurray to pit early as well. This provided to be true. There was some good radio chatter between Matt Kenseth and his team concerning the debris on the backstretch.

The major flaw I saw in NBC's coverage of this race was that seems to focus too much on just a few cars, obviously the ones they felt provided the best "story" potential for this track, such as Stewart, Earnhardt, and later Kenseth. NBC placed so much emphasis on the pit decision involving Kenseth that they failed to mention that several other cars had stayed out as well, including Jeff Gordon. Later, these cars gained valuable track position for the end of the race which they might not have gotten.

When the cars came into pit during the debris caution, NBC chose an overhead shot of them that was so far away it was impossible to tell which car was which. I'm assuming this shot was from NBC's highly touted camera on the Indy scoring pilon. If you can't recognize the cars, what value does the shot have, other than showing off a new toy? Finally, someone spoke up and told us that Stewart had come into pit as well as the cars which had not yet made their stops.

On the restart, we had several cars on the tail end of the lead lap and positioned ahead of the leader, McMurray. This was a good chance to briefly use a pointer or bubble to show where the leader sat relative to the front of the field. Unfortunately, rather just a brief bubble, NBC chose to keep the #42 hovering over the cars through the restart and it effectively covered up many of the cars. This happened again on the last restart of the race as well. I guess the temptation to use all the toys for such a perceived "big" race was just too tempting.

There were several good replays of the accident where Terry Labonte got hit by Kurt Busch and the resulting pile-up. Someone in the booth starting saying that it had been caused by the 42 car getting sideways. Eventually, they figured out that Labonte slowed to avoid the car of Dave Blaney who dropped back suddenly. I was disappointed that NBC did not provide very thorough updates after they initially identified which cars were involved in the wreck. Later in the race, I was surprised to see that Labonte and Johnson had remained in the race and actually stayed on the lead lap. It seems like NBC's focus was more geared towards the "excitement" of who would win what they felt was such a prestigious race at this point, rather than covering events further back in the field. NBC did show us Jeff Gordon passing Robby Gordon and Bill Elliott with three laps to go. Unfortunately with two to go, the director chose to follow Kevin Harvick around the track and switched to the flagman waving the checkered flag at the end of the race. All of this was accompanied by Allen giving a dramatic rundown of Harvick's career up to this point. This is an example of where today's TV networks seem to completely forget that viewers want to see as much of the action in the last few laps of a race and not simply watch the leader going around the track all by himself or the flourish of the checkered flag waving. This is where I thought NBC totally blew things and made me feel like they valued the "spectacle" of winning at Indianapolis over the racing itself. Granted, it wasn't a particularly competitive race, but it was like the broadcast team wanted us to forget that fact amidst all the hype over it being at Indy. Maybe this tact works on the casual fan, but it doesn't cut it with many long-term fans of the sport.

The end of the race was followed up with at least five minutes following Harvick's burnouts, when some commercials could have been saved from earlier in the race and shown during part of this time. Eventually, the producer switched to interviews with the second through fourth place finishers. The NBC producer just doesn't seem to be able to effectively choose the appropriate spacing for commercials.

Overall, this was a good broadcast, but the need to embellish Indianapolis seemed to be a theme throughout the day at the expense of more coverage of possible racing throughout the field. The NBC team did do their usual job of covering pit strategies and most of the action on the track.

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